Written by Sean McKean, Edited by Meghana Sree
In the history of America’s most prestigious race, many drivers have made a name for themselves. Most make their mark in a positive way, such as by taking a race win or pole, but what about the other side of the coin? Many have completely missed the mark by not qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, some being very surprising, whether it be due to driver status, car performance, or just being unexpectedly off.
2019 - Fernando Alonso
Perhaps the most memorable to the common fan is Fernando Alonso, who infamously failed to qualify for the 2019 Indianapolis 500. Having raced the 500-mile race in 2017, which ended in a DNF due to an engine failure late in the running, the Spaniard knew what to expect heading in. What he didn’t anticipate, however, was the litany of issues with the car.
The trouble began during practice when Alonso suffered a crash early in the running. Since the main car was a total write-off, the partnered duo of McLaren and Carlin needed to hastily send the spare car out from the factory in the United Kingdom. This didn’t come without a problem either, as the car had been painted the wrong colour. Not a big deal, but they missed valuable track time due to their want to look flashy.
Once the spare car finally got out to Indianapolis, the problems continued. Back overseas, the engineers had trouble converting from the American imperial and British metric measuring systems. It was this error that caused Alonso’s car to scrape along the ground, plus faulty gear ratios, which meant he wouldn’t have the pace to qualify.
After 2019, the two-time world champion would attempt the race again, in which he would qualify for the race; however, it would only be a P21 finish. Since then, he’s spent his time within Formula 1 for the Alpine and Aston Martin teams.
1995 - Emerson Fittipaldi
For a driver as seasoned as Emerson Fittipaldi, his last attempt at the prestigious Indianapolis 500 did not go as planned.
A two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, the orange juice promoter had a chaotic weekend at the Brickyard. Fittipaldi attempted to qualify three separate cars, two from Penske and one from Rahal. He failed to reach adequate speed in all three cars. A lack of seat time in one car plus the differing setups meant he missed the field in 1995.
As the next season began, his career would come to an end, as he suffered major injuries in a CART race at Michigan. Afterward, he went into team ownership.
1995 - Al Unser Jr
Fittipaldi was not the only shocking driver to miss the field, as Al Unser Jr. did the same. All-in-all, the 1995 debacle could potentially be down to issues within Team Penske more so than the drivers. During the first practice session, Unser and Fittipaldi struggled to reach 210mph (337kph) while the rest of the field was hitting 220mph (354kph).
The tension within Penske became too much to bear, with engineers arguing and personnel panicking. It seemed like every fix the team tried failed to make any difference. In Unser’s case, he took the risk of taking a brand new Reynard chassis in hopes of fixing the struggles. However, this chassis was not enough. Even after trying to get another one from Rahal, they ultimately had to settle for a slow pace in qualifying.
Hope seemed to be high halfway through the first run, with Unser on a lap quick enough to make it, but his engine blew up before he could complete the lap. Both Fittipaldi and Unser danced around the bubble before being barely bumped out by Stefan Johansson in the last 12 minutes. Unser, Fittipaldi, and everyone else involved were completely devastated.
1963 - Graham Hill
Out of all the drivers on this list, the last person you would expect to see is motorsports’ only triple crown winner, but in 1963, Graham Hill failed to make it to the last third he needed.
Not much is known as to what went wrong. Some theories range from the car not being up to par, to him just flying home directly after testing. Whichever it may be, Hill has a DNQ on his record for the Indianapolis 500.
However, if any doubt ever surrounded his Indy 500 runs, they would be shattered in 1966 when he achieved a convincing win.
1958 - Juan Manuel Fangio
The last of the drivers on this list may surprise you, as many don’t recall five-time F1 world champion Juan Manuel Fangio’s attempt at Indianapolis.
In 1958, he brought the infamous Kurtis Craft machine to the Brickyard. Despite how decorated Fangio already was by this point, his car just didn’t have the pace. Due to the uncompetitive nature of the car, the Argentine withdrew from the event just prior to Bump Day and retired from racing not too much later.